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William H. McNeill (historian)

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William Hardy McNeill (October 31, 1917 – July 8, 2016)[1] was a Canadian-American world historian and author, particularly noted for his writings on Western civilization. He was Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago where he had taught since 1947.[2] He was also the father of historian J. R. McNeill with whom he co-authored The Human Web: A Bird's-eye View of World History.[3]

William H. McNeill
Smiling older man holding a stack of books in front of him; the top one is tilted up so the title, World History, is visible.
Holding first copies of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History on his 87th birthday
Born (1917-10-31)October 31, 1917
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Died July 8, 2016(2016-07-08) (aged 98)
Torrington, Connecticut, United States
Occupation Professor, Historian, Writer
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Darbishire (married 1946–2006)
Children J. R. McNeill, Andrew, Ruth, Deborah
Awards National Book Award
National Humanities Medal
Academic background
Education University of Chicago
Alma mater Cornell University
Thesis "The Influence of the Potato on Irish History" (1947)
Academic work
Discipline World historian
Institutions University of Chicago
Notable works The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community


Life and careerEdit

Early life, education, and military serviceEdit

William McNeill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, the son of theologian and educator John T. McNeill. He was educated at the University of Chicago, where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in 1938 and Master of Arts (M.A.) in 1939. In 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in World War II in the European theater.[4] After the war, he obtained his PhD at Cornell University, in 1947.[2]


In 1947, McNeill began teaching at the University of Chicago, which became his home throughout his professional career.

McNeill's most popular work, completed early in his career, is The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963).[5] The book explored world history in terms of the effect of different old world civilizations on one another, and especially the dramatic effect of Western civilization on others in the past 500 years. It had a major impact on historical theory, especially its emphasis on cultural fusions, in contrast to Oswald Spengler's view of discrete, independent civilizations.

McNeill's Rise of the West won the 1964 U.S. National Book Award in History and Biography.[6] His Plagues and Peoples (1976), was an important early contribution to the impact of disease on human history and contributed to the emergence of environmental history as a discipline.[citation needed]

McNeill was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama on February 25, 2010. The citation recognizes "his exceptional talent as a teacher and scholar at the University of Chicago and as an author of more than 20 books, including The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), which traces civilizations through 5,000 years of recorded history."[7]

Personal lifeEdit

McNeill was married to Elizabeth Darbishire[8] until her death in 2006.


McNeill died in July 2016, at the age of 98.[9]




  1. ^ "William H. McNeill, Professor and Prolific Author, Dies at 98". New York Times. Retrieved 2016-07-13. 
  2. ^ a b c McNeill, William H. (March 1979), "Historical Patterns of Migration", Current Anthropology, 20 (1): 95–102, doi:10.1086/202206, JSTOR 2741864, PMID 11630845 . (Biographical details from bottom of page 95.)
  3. ^ McNeill, William H. & McNeill, J. R (2003). The Human Web: A Bird's-eye View of World History. New York: Norton. 
  4. ^ "A germ of an idea". University of Chicago Magazine. Retrieved 2013-02-07. 
  5. ^ McNeill, William H. (1963). The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. University of Chicago Press. 
  6. ^ "National Book Awards". National Book Foundation. 1964. Retrieved March 17, 2012. 
  7. ^ ["President Obama Awards 2009 National Humanities Medals". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved March 18, 2012. 
  8. ^ McNeill, William (2005). The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian's Memoir. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press. p. 52. 
  9. ^ "Obituary". University of Chicago News. 

Further reading

External linksEdit